The power of stories

Henry Miller wrote, “One can’t make a new heaven and earth with facts.” It couldn’t be truer. I remember learning all my early lessons courtesy my grandparents’ story-telling. After dinner, we would huddle up to listen to their stories. Using our youthful prerogative to interrupt them every now and then with a series of persistent “but why” questions, we would not let them proceed until we had our answers.

Looking back, I still associate the lessons with the delicious twists of the fabulous stories my grandparents told me. Varied, universal and specific – all at once! The interior landscape of what they were narrating put me in a receptive mode instantly and embedded their practical and ethical details deep within me – mine to recall and mine to repurpose. This was learning at its most elemental and at its best.

Story-telling, particularly in an oral culture like ours, reminds us that spoken words are powerful, that listening is important, and that communication is an art. It becomes incumbent upon us then to follow the storyteller’s creed and choose our words with care and with imagination.

This is how storytelling becomes a means for understanding and interpreting disparate experiences. This is how stories help bridge cultural, linguistic and hierarchical as well as inter-generational divides. Story-telling can be used as a method to teach ethics, values and cultural norms while taking away the imperatives of preaching. As they say, learning is most effective when it takes place in social environments that provide authentic social cues. Stories, therefore, become a tool to transfer knowledge in a social context.

In today’s nuclear families, the function of grandparents as folklorists, archivists, family historians and gentle moralists has been replaced by a one-sided, regressive and often cynical monologue offered by television. The practice of the usual post-dinner free-wheeling chat peppered with anecdotes subtly changed and embellished with every recount, is sadly vanishing. That form of sharing and archiving our recent past and the present continuous was an invaluable form of communication with lessons and opportunities for us in the corporate sector too. These oblique, often asymmetrical and idiosyncratic approaches, can tell us a thing or two about understanding and taking the best from our cultures and those of our stakeholders, however diverse they might seem at first glance.

Emotions, self-awareness and being responsive to the needs of others will open for us other worlds and other points of view. Plurality and respect for others will help make the learning process more meaningful and permanent. Stories can capture our imagination and make things come alive for us with all their connections and patterns in a way that mere listing of facts never will.

Stories can create legends upon which an entire workplace culture can grow, and they have the power to break down barriers and turn an intractable situation into a hopeful one. Stories can be powerful leadership tools, if they are used for the right purpose and delivered right.